The cheapest source of music for your show choir will be stock arrangements available from the traditional major music publishers such as Hal Leonard or Alfred. These are great options for non-competitive performances or for prep groups that are still learning the basics. If you intend to use a stock arrangement in one of your competitive shows, it should fit the following criteria:
• The voicing should be high enough that your singers can easily project while dancing. Alto parts below middle C and bass parts below G3 tend to get covered easily.
• If it is going to be used as an opener or closer, it must have dance breaks—or moments you could vamp or leave the vocals out to create one.
• It should have instrumental accompaniment that is comparable to the rest of your show—it is a real downer if you only use the full band on some of the songs in a set.
• And finally, the less repetition a chart has, the more effective it is going to be in competition. Many stock charts repeat large sections note for note—that does not go over great in competition.
The main disadvantage of using a stock arrangement, of course, is the inability to go back to the arranger and request changes. However, there are still minor edits such as the following that can have a big impact: choosing a more appropriate tempo, making a cut that shortens the arrangement, doubling parts—or leaving parts out—for the sake of voicing, or adding an extra note occasionally to embellish an important chord. It is also permissible to change the key of the arrangement if this can be done without recreating the sheet music.
It is common practice in the show choir industry for arrangers to maintain a list of all the custom arrangements they have written in past years. This list is typically updated each summer at the end of competition season. Some of the most prolific arrangers have built websites to advertise their catalogs where listeners can hear audio samples and sort by voicing, genre, theme, function, and other identifiers. Examples of these include breezetunes.com, bmkmusic.com, ericvancleave.com, and showchoircharts.com.
Purchasing music from an arranger’s catalog will require the exact same kind of copyright license as a new custom arrangement, but the arranger’s fee will be much lower. This option is a great way for choirs with lower budgets to perform highly competitive music; it is also a great way for you to “audition” a new arranger and get to know their style before investing in a custom arrangement.
The biggest advantage of using previously arranged titles is the time saved. Even though custom arrangement licenses are still required, the fact that a song has been cleared previously is generally a good sign approval will be granted again. Furthermore, since the music is already finished, rehearsal and preparation of other show elements—such as choreography, costuming, and lighting—can begin right away!
Using catalog arrangements in your show does not make the design process any easier—in fact, in many ways it is more challenging! It is much easier to hire one arranger, give them all the information about your group, pick songs together, and then let them do their magic. As with most things, communication is key. The arrangers themselves are the best resource for helping you find something that is a good fit. Not only that, but many arrangers will also adjust charts in their catalog for a nominal fee.
As you browse arrangers’ catalogs, make sure you are thinking about the following:
The voicing has to be right for your choir. Many custom charts are written with unusual part combinations because they were originally written for unbalanced ensembles. Check ranges for sopranos and tenors; and make sure there is not more divisi in the chart than your group can successfully handle.
Is it in a good key? Do not be afraid to ask for the chart in a new key if that will make your life better. Notation software has a magical button that modulates everything in an arrangement with one click.
Get the right band parts to satisfy your instrumentation. The configuration of the band, especially horns, can vary greatly from chart to chart. When in doubt, always ask. There may be an easy solution to missing parts, for example, copying a trombone part into a tenor sax part if you have more saxes than bones.
ALWAYS put show function first. It does not matter how much you like a song; if the arrangement was designed as a transition number and you want it to be a closer, it is not going to do what you need it to do.
Independent Publishers and Nontraditional Music
Due to the costs associated with licensing, there are a small but growing number of composers and arrangers who maintain independent catalogs of competition music that can be purchased and performed without requiring additional permissions. This category includes composers who have written original songs for show choir, arrangers who have struck deals with independent artists to arrange and sell their music, and others who have done the hard work of pre-clearing arrangements to sell directly (the most popular of which is showchoirstock.com.) Many groups get creative and widen their search for music even further, incorporating a cappella arrangements, concert choir, gospel music, folk songs, or patriotic tunes into their shows.
The best—and most expensive—way to buy music for show choir is to have it arranged specifically for your show. There is simply no substitute for having an experienced arranger on your staff who can be a part of the creative team, get to know your program, and craft something unique and memorable. The benefits should be obvious, but they include:
• The ability to highlight the strengths and avoid the weaknesses in your singers
• Having a person who can make edits and tweak things as needed
• Getting the exact parts you need for your instrumental accompaniment
• Being able to execute a creative vision with few limitations
Because every arranger does things differently, knowing how YOU like to collaborate—and how you like to communicate—is the key to working together effectively. Make sure they know the areas where you want something specific and the areas where you want them to be creative. Keep them in the loop as things develop, as things change, and as you learn more about the needs of your choir.
It can be hard to find an arranger who is the right fit. Of all the players in the show choir community, arrangers are perhaps the least visible. Additionally, because they are not required to travel and do their work in person like choreographers, it can be harder to forge those relationships. Some directors and choreographers treat arrangers like just another vendor—a store where they can buy music—but making the arranger a full and equal member of the creative team will work wonders for your show.